The Uses of History, 8 – From France, 1812 to Russia, 1917, 5 – 1848

The problem with successful revolutions (as with battles and wars) is what the victors decide to do with their victory. All the high passion and strident rhetoric about freedom all too often disappear in an orgy of violent retribution upon the former oppressors. Between 1793-4, the Terror in France is said to have beheaded 30 000 “traitors” before it was ended by its chief perpetrator, Robespierre, taking his turn at the guillotine. The “Terror Phase” of revolution is usually followed by new sets of restrictions and limitations to control embittered losers and other dissidents, and firmly entrench the new definers of freedom in control with their hands on the machinery of State and jurisprudence.

The Uses of History, 7 – From France 1812 to Russia, 1917, 4

But what, or who, should replace the hated Bourbons? Another republic? God forbid! For the haute bourgeoisie of Paris and France, who were now the real power-élite, a return to Jacobinism (the term for the most radical socialist and egalitarian ideology of the Revolution) with its anarchy and chaos was unthinkable! Jacobin elements were not hard to find in the shadows of Paris’ salons and clubs, disguised under many names. To preserve France they had to be nipped in the bud.

The Uses of History, 6 – From France 1812 to Russia, 1917, 3

In the long run, the most influential of all the “Big Three” thinkers of the French Enlightenment was Rousseau. Rousseau stands apart. As a brilliant thinker and writer in his own right, he shocked even the trendy, progressive “salon set” with his radicalism between 1754 and his death in 1778. He further scandalized the elite social set by deliberately affronting the ethical and moral standards of the day. He was an iconoclast par excellence.

The Uses of History, 5 – From France to Russia, 1812-1917, 2

When Alexander had acceded to power in 1801, the idealists had placed high hopes that he, a young man himself, could be shown and persuaded that things had to change for the sake of the Russian people and the Empire itself. By 1825, the lower-grade officers (ranks below general – Generals and Marshals could only be upper-level nobles) had lost hope in Alexander or any of the established authorities of ever being willing or able to allow even the most modest reforms.

The Uses of History, 4 – From France to Russia, 1812-1917, 1

These were the seeds that were paid forward into the next hundred plus years (and right to our time) along with the hope awakened among ordinary folks and citizens for better days and more equal distribution of resources and opportunities. The shoots which sprouted would feed forward both openly where they could, and under the surface in states which maintained repressive, anti-democratic governments. These were the streams that would run forward to Karl Marx, Bukharin, and a host of others to engender the Socialist International, the trade unions movement, the powerful thrust by the bourgeoisie (middle class) to win its way to power and open the doors for all to be free and to fairly try their chance.

The Uses of History, 3 – The French Revolution, 1789-99, 2

The links from the United States and France were close and multiple, including inspiration at the beginning and ongoing sympathy as the USA hoped to see a sister republic emerge as a great power in Europe, and thus challenge the British so that Britain would not consider attempting to restore its old empire. The War of 1812-14 between the United States and Britain was a direct offshoot of the long struggle between Britain and France in Europe.

The Uses of History, 2 – The French Revolution, 1789-99, 1

These basic facts of existence apply to whole peoples and nations as much as to individuals. France is a salient historical model of this. The French Revolution of 1789-99 was a socio-political earthquake in Europe, and eventually changed the world through its “trickle-down effects”. The old debate among historians about whether the Revolution was inevitable or avoidable is rather beside the point. It happened. While its long-term and immediate causes can still be debated, its consequences reverberate more than ever even in the 21st Century.

The Uses of History, 1 – From Hannibal to the US Constitution

Santayana’s famous adage about ignoring and repeating the lessons of history has been quoted so often that we now even ignore the current truth that we have forgotten history itself and are therefore, by default, doomed to keep on returning to the vomit of the worst mistakes of our past over and over. Our leaders seem to live by the classic definition of insanity as we keep on doing the same things over and over while expecting a different result.